Most people think all asbestos was removed from New York City public schools years ago. So participants in a New York State Assembly hearing on healthy schools earlier this year were shocked to learn that last year construction workers who were replacing a gym floor at P.S. 219 in Brownsville, Brooklyn inadvertently released the flaky white substance throughout the building. The school was shut down immediately for an emergency cleanup. Student and faculty health was jeopardized, and valuable learning time was lost.
The legislators were even more shocked to learn that no one knows how many other New York City school buildings still contain asbestos; records at the Department of Education are incomplete.
At the Healthy Schools Network, our files are filled with reports from parents and teachers who are struggling to deal with unusual and unnerving illnesses affecting their children, students and coworkers. But it is not possible to do a scientific study to see if environmental conditions in their schools are at fault. The data is simply not available; neither city nor state officials keep track. But ignoring the problem will not make it go away.
ILLNESSES AND ABSENCES
Students spend nearly a quarter of their waking hours in school buildings that parents trust are safe. Unfortunately, there are real reasons for concern in many public schools. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that environmental health hazards like mold infestations, toxic chemicals, diesel fumes and contaminated renovation debris, along with other pollutants such as pesticides and toxic cleaning and maintenance products, can foul a school’s indoor air quality. In fact, the EPA estimates that about half of the nation's schools have poor indoor air, a major health hazard. In the winter, as schools shut their windows and children spend more time indoors, the problem becomes even worse.
In New York City, the state Assembly heard testimony from Avril Dannenbaum, whose seven-year-old son attended PS 111 in Manhattan. He has a chronic infection that compromises his immune system. His mother says she can manage his infection and his seasonal allergies at home. “But then,” she explained, “if you add on environmental allergens in his school, such as a dirty rug to sit on, peeling, flaking paint from the walls and window sills, along with industrial cleaning products and insecticides, you have a child who comes close to shutdown. Then he is unable to learn or function in class.”
While many problems afflict older schools, new ones are not immune. Tests found high levels of two chlorine solvents at a new high school in the Soundview section of the Bronx, hastily constructed in an old Loral Electronics factory. Both are known to cause serious ailments, including cancer. Assured by authorities that the vapors were below threat levels, parents later found out that city tests of soil and ground water at the site had revealed serious lead, mercury, cadmium, and chromium contamination.
A PROBLEM IGNORED
With parents, the press, and the political establishment all demanding tougher academic standards and higher test scores, physical conditions in the schools tend to be ignored. Proposals abound for how the city might spend the billions it is owed under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, but none of them includes any mention of using some of the money to make schools more environmentally healthy.
These health policies and practices have a direct impact on academic achievement and efficient allocation of education funds for every child. Poor environmental conditions in schools sicken students, teachers and staff, and inhibit academic performance. And our neediest children also need the healthiest schools. Poor school facilities contribute to a poor leaning environment that can undermine children’s health, attendance and test scores.
The American Lung Association, along with the federal Centers for Disease Control and the EPA, agree that asthma is the number one reason for school absenteeism due to chronic disease in New York’s schools. The city has some of the worst asthma rates in the nation, and the disease is epidemic in many neighborhoods, especially communities of color and among the poor. Public health officials studying urban asthma think a cleaner classroom environment could help control the crisis.
CLEARING THE AIR
There is some good news to report. Coal boilers, which remained in some New York City schools for more than 20 years after they were outlawed in other facilities, have now all been removed. In 1999, the state Education Department issued minimal standards and procedures for school indoor environmental quality and health and safety. State legislation has banned arsenic-infused pressure treated wood (commonly used in playground equipment), pesticide-laden cake toilet deodorizers and elemental mercury (a potent neurotoxin) in schools. Schools must now provide notification when they plan to apply toxic pesticides.
In August, Governor George Pataki signed legislation requiring schools to use environmentally preferable (green) cleaning products. The state Office of General Services already does this for state facilities, so the healthy products are readily available. Reducing student and staff exposure to industrial strength chemicals will help reduce school absenteeism. The program will take effect with the start of the September 2006 school year.
Both the city and state are moving toward implementing guidelines to assure that all school construction and renovations meet high standards for health. In New York City, a broad coalition of environmental, labor, health and healthy schools advocates were pleased when the City Council passed a green building standards bill earlier this year and Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed it into law in October. This significant legislation requires that all public construction, including schools, meet standards for environmentally friendly â€“ or green â€“ buildings by January 2007. By requiring better ventilation and barring the use of toxic paints, carpets and other materials, this measure will help improve student health and performance.
WHAT MORE CAN BE DONE
Now it is time to take further steps. Fortunately, protecting our children will not add billions to the cost of education.
At the federal level, Senator Hillary Clinton secured amendments to the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which for the first time defined healthy and high performance school standards in federal law. This legislation required a comprehensive federal study of how school environmental quality affects student health and learning. But Washington’s follow-through has been flawed. The report, which was produced last year, has yet to be released to the public. Clinton’s initiative also established a grant program for states to spur the development of healthier schools. Unfortunately, Congress has neglected to fund this despite intensive advocacy by the National Coalition for Healthier Schools (in .pdf format), a coalition of over 300 organizations and individuals led by the Healthy Schools Network.
New York State also needs to do more. Albany offers a Green Building Tax Credit that gives incentives to commercial developers to design and construct green buildings, but the credit is not available for schools. Pataki has signed an executive order that requires all state public construction to meet the standards of the Green Building Tax Credit. But while the state recommends that schools meet those standards, it does not require them to do so. That should change.
And the state should move ahead on initiatives already in the works, such as a joint project of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the State Education Department to develop healthy and high performance school design standards. The legislature should pass a bill introduced by Senator James Alesi and Assemblymember Steven Englebright that would require healthy and high performance design standards for all New York schools.
For parents, teachers and school staff, such improvements cannot come soon enough. As Avril Dannenbaum told state lawmakers about her child, “I can make his home as safe as possible, but it’s at school that he needs to be able to function well to learn optimally. I’d like you to make his school a safe place where he can study and reach his full potential.”
Stephen Boese is the New York State director of the Healthy Schools NetworkImage above (photomodified) from The Texas Department of Health